Mining the Melody

as published in Just Jazz Guitar, August 2006

My jazz guitar students often ask me questions like, "Which should I learn, chord/scale relationships or arpeggios?" Those things are important, but the end goal of the learning is to be able to create improvised melody.

Joe Pass once spoke in an interview of how his father would urge him to learn melodies of all kinds, even doing things like saying,"Get that, get that!" to young Joe while an aria from the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcast was playing on the family radio. Joe was expected to grab his guitar and pick out the melody on the spot! As a result of this informal "ear training", Joe got very good at playing anything he could hear, and his brain was programmed with a multitude of melodies, all of which could be borrowed from (either consciously or subconsciously) for his own improvisations. He understood melody on an instinctive level.

I did much the same thing as a kid. I would always have my guitar handy when I watched TV or listened to the radio and would try to get as much as I could of whatever I would hear - jingles, pop tunes, country music, classical, TV themes. Now, snippets of familiar tunes show up in my solos in all sorts of ways. When I improvise, I'm always trying to create interesting melodies, and much of what I know and believe about melody comes from the ideas I absorbed from these boyhood transcriptions.

When soloing on any given tune, I think it's important to come up with a good opening statement, something I can develop or expound upon as I continue the solo. If I can start with a phrase that interests me, the rest of the solo almost takes care of itself. I also like to have this opening statement refer to the tune in some way; this helps avoid the generic sound which often results from the unthinking application of approaches which are solely harmonic or rhythmic. Following are three improvised and transcribed examples, using the standard There Will Never Be Another You as a framework.

In Example 1 (notation | sound), I'm using the rhythm from the first two bars of the tune's melody for my first two bars. The original melody in that spot has an ascending stepwise pitch contour; I've decided to use a descending arpeggio shape instead. In my next two bars, I sequence my original idea and delay my entrance by half a beat. This leads to another idea; in bars 5 and 6, I play another sequenced phrase which is only three beats long. This idea floats across the bar line to create a hemiola effect (three against two). This inspires the stream of eighth notes in bars 7 and 8, a phrase which resolves the rhythmic tension but introduces some harmonic tension.

Example 2 (notation | sound) begins with the first four pitches from the melody, rhythmically displaced by a half-beat and followed by a smoother diatonic scalar pattern. These two bars are then sequenced in measures 3 and 4, with the second half of the sequenced idea becoming less diatonic.

Example 3 (notation | sound) opens with a paraphrase of bars 30 and 31 from the original tune, which I thought was fun, like "starting with the ending". The rhythmic phrasing again implies a three-against-two scheme. The sequence is repeated three times; the last note of the example coincides with the original melody.

I want to emphasize that these opening statements are things which were first improvised, then written out. All I started with was the idea of using features from the song's melody. These three examples are what resulted on that particular day. If you've ever found yourself getting bored with your soloing or getting that familiar feeling that "all my solos sound the same", try plundering the tune itself for ideas. You'll uncover countless possibilities!